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Earthdate 2004-01-05

“Horsey” Vikings II — Avars

The Avars were a nomadic folk, as Encyclopædia Britannica notes, “of undetermined origin and language,” who in the 6th century AD built a vast empire in central Europe stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Baltic, and from the Elbe River to the Dnieper.  Avars made their entrance onto the stage of history when, according to Britannica: 10

Inhabiting an area in the Caucasus region in 558, they intervened in Germanic tribal wars, allied with the Lombards to overthrow the Gepidae (allies of Byzantium), and between 550 and 575 established themselves in the Hungarian plain between the Danube and Tisza rivers.  This area became the centre of their empire, which reached its peak at the end of the 6th century.

This movement of the Avars which ended up in the central European plain was originally instigated, however, by Byzantine diplomacy, as historians John L. Teall and Donald MacGillivray Nicol, in their article “The History of the Byzantine Empire” in Britannica, point out: 11

As long as the financial resources remained adequate, diplomacy proved the most satisfactory weapon in an age when military manpower was a scarce and precious commodity.  Justinian's subordinates were to perfect it in their relationships with Balkan and south Russian peoples.  For, if the Central Asian lands constituted a great reservoir of people, whence a new menace constantly emerged, the very proliferation of enemies meant that one might be used against another through skillful combination of bribery, treaty, and perfidy.  East Roman relations in the late 6th century with the Avars, a Mongol people seeking refuge from the Turks, provide an excellent example of this “defensive imperialism.”  The Avar ambassadors reached Constantinople in 557, and, although they did not receive the lands they demanded, they were loaded with precious gifts and allied by treaty with the empire.  The Avars moved westward from south Russia, subjugating Utigurs, Kutrigurs, and Slavic peoples to the profit of the empire.  At the end of Justinian's reign, they stood on the Danube, a nomadic people hungry for lands and additional subsidies and by no means unskilled themselves in a sort of perfidious diplomacy that would help them pursue their objectives.

We encountered the Avars in Impearls' earlier article Crusades IV (permalink), when acting in concert with the invading Sasanian Persians (who had overrun Byzantium's Asiatic provinces), they besieged Constantinople, the “New Rome” and capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The Persians were prevented from joining up across the Bosporus with the Avars, and both were thrown back (626), whereupon Avar influence was diminished to an extent that new powers, such as the Bulgarians, emerged on their flanks, while hosts of their slaves and serfs threw off their yoke (a fascinating story in its own right) — but Avar power did not disappear.  Despite narrow escapes at the hands of the Romans, the core of the Avar realm remained intact, centered on the Hungarian plain, for most of the next two hundred years.

Historian Gerhard Seeliger describes, in The Cambridge Medieval History, the Avars' permanent facilities: 12

In the plain between the Danube and the Theiss were situated the “Rings” — the strong circular walls round extensive dwelling-places.  According to the assertion of a Frankish warrior — quoted by the Monk of St Gall — the Rings extended as far “as from Zurich to Constance” (therefore about 60 kilometres or nearly 38 miles) and embraced several districts.  In these Rings, of which, according to the Monk of St Gall, there were nine, the Avars had heaped their plunder of two centuries.

Late in the 8th century the Avars attempted to break the growing power of the Frankish Empire of Charles the Great (known to us as Charlemagne), by allying with the Frankish realm's most important enemies — Saxons and Saracens.  In the year 788 the Avars attacked the Empire, but were totally defeated.  Charles resolved to extirpate the Avar threat; he was delayed for several years — however, Dr. Seeliger describes the Avars' downfall:

In the year 795 the Margrave Erich of Friuli, supported by the Slav prince Woinimir, advanced over the Danube and took the principal Ring.  Large treasures of gold made their way to the Franks, and even if the opinion is scarcely tenable that great changes in prices in the Frankish Empire were the result, still his success was great.  In the following year Charles' son Pepin completed the work of conquest.  He destroyed the Ring, subdued the Avars, and opened large districts to the preaching of Christianity.  In later years small risings had still to be put down, and Frankish blood still flowed in battle against the barbarians.  In 811 a Frankish army was sent against Pannonia.  But these were only echoes of the past.  The Avars themselves are mentioned for the last time in 822.

Assessment:  Purely from a combination of attributes, the Avars must rank among the highest in overall resemblance to the Rohirrim.  Their military equipment kit was largely the same as the Sarmatians — which is to say, very close to the Rohirrim — plus the stirrup was indubitably known by the Avars' time, so this aspect of their gear matches as well.  Avars occupied “lands that had once been part of the domain of a neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed,” — i.e., lands formerly belonging to the Roman Empire.  They certainly possessed permanent residences and very substantial fortifications.  (Thus the Avars really were, in their own special sense, “Lord of the Rings.”)

If the Avar — or, say, the Gothic — realm equals Rohan, what then is Gondor, that “neighboring culture that is both older and more highly developed”?  Obviously Gondor must be the (diminished) Roman Empire!  Which means that Minas Tirith is… Constantinople.  Actually, this makes a lot of sense (smile).  Though Constantinople doesn't ring a mountain, its walls do encircle (7) hills, and were indeed the most formidable city-wall fortifications — the only double wall — in history.  Associating with fabulous Constantinople ought not dishonor Minas Tirith's name one whit!

(Perhaps someday Impearls will review Constantinople's amazing walls and defenses.  In the meantime see Impearls' article Crusades II [permalink] for an appreciation of the Byzantine Empire.)
 



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